Massive Oil Spill Turns Brazil's Beaches Black, Kills Marine Life, Threatens Communities
By Emily Petsko
Update, Nov. 7: Brazilian authorities named a Greek-flagged vessel as the culprit of the oil spill, but backtracked on Wednesday when they announced that four other suspected tankers were also being investigated. Three of the crude-carrying vessels are owned by Greek companies, and the fourth suspect is owned by a Belgian company, according to Reuters.
Update, Nov. 4: Brazilian and international media are now reporting that fragments of oil have reached the Abrolhos Marine National Park. This story is still developing.
One by one, the golden beaches in northeastern Brazil have begun to turn black. Thick clumps of oil have been washing ashore since late August, killing marine animals, threatening the livelihoods of coastal communities and tainting 2,500 kilometers of coastline spanning nine Brazilian states. Once-pristine beaches now look like something resembling a Rorschach inkblot test. And the complex root systems of carbon sink mangrove forests have become polluted mazes.
This oil spill is one of the largest environmental disasters in Brazil's recorded history — and for months, no one knew where it was coming from. The Brazilian government has responded with delayed action and defensiveness, first blaming neighboring Venezuela for the spill while also suggesting that Greenpeace was somehow involved. President Jair Bolsonaro's tactic is familiar: He previously accused environmental groups of setting fires in the Amazon rainforest, without any supporting evidence.
Brazilian investigators now say that a Greek-flagged vessel hauling Venezuelan oil is the culprit, according to the latest reports. The ship reportedly spilled oil 700 kilometers from Brazil's coast in late July while traveling to Singapore.
"There is strong evidence that the company, the captain and the vessel's crew failed to communicate with authorities about the oil spill/release of the crude oil in the Atlantic Ocean," prosecutors said, according to The Guardian.
While the mystery appears to have been solved, this environmental crisis is far from remedied. It took exactly 41 days for Bolsonaro's administration to enact a national plan from 2013 that specifically outlines how to address large oil spills in Brazilian waters.
Ademilson Zamboni, vice president of Oceana Brazil, said the government must apply the plan while also investigating the source of the spill, calling the incident "very serious." Some fear that the oil could soon reach the country's largest coral reef, located within the Abrolhos Marine National Park. The Abrolhos region is home to the largest biodiversity in the South Atlantic.
A colorful coral within the Abrolhos Marine National Park. Shutterstock / Leo Francini
A report released by the Brazilian Navy says that over 1,000 tons of oil have already been removed from beaches in the region. Without a coordinated federal response, citizens have had no choice but to take action themselves, putting their own health at risk. Volunteers, some in their bare feet, have been using shovels and their gloved hands to scoop and remove oil deposits. In one striking photograph, a 13-year-old boy, coated in oil and wearing a plastic garbage bag, is seen wading through waist-high waters off the coast of Pernambuco. He said he and his relatives had just wanted to help.
Volunteers remove oil from Jardim de Alah Beach in the state of Bahia. Shutterstock / Joa Souza
The problem extends far beyond the shore, too. "It is easy to clean up oil from beaches, but not from mangroves and rocky shores," Zamboni says. "And the longer it remains in these places, the worse the damage it causes. The main problem is that we do not know how much oil is yet to arrive. And it may last a long time."
This is exactly the type of disaster that Oceana and its allies have worked hard to prevent. Just weeks ago, environmental advocates successfully convinced companies that the risk of drilling for oil off the coast of Bahia, a state in northeastern Brazil, was too high. When the government attempted to auction off four oil fields near the Abrolhos Marine National Park, the would-be bidders fell silent. Oil industry analyst Adriano Pires told the Associated Press that companies "didn't want to get themselves in the middle of an environmental mess."
A dead turtle on a beach in the Brazilian state of Ceará. © OCEANA / José Machado
Drilling in that area has been averted for now, but the fight continues to stop offshore drilling in Brazil and many other countries where Oceana works. Spills such as the one now coating Brazil's coast — and approaching the very area just spared from drilling — also prove that other steps must be taken to protect our oceans.
Better transparency at sea, for example, could help identify the individual ships responsible for oil spills. "If vessel tracking — useful for both fishing and oil — were in place all over the world, we could have more clear information," Zamboni says.
But until that happens, and until the Brazilian government takes decisive action to stem the spill, once-beautiful beaches will continue to turn black.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Oceana.
- Brazilians Clean up Oil by Hand Amid 'Disgust' Over Bolsonaro's ... ›
- 60,000 Liters of Oil Spills From Pipeline Into Brazilian Bay - EcoWatch ›
- Source of Vast Oil Spill Covering Brazil's Northeast Coast Unknown ... ›
- The Mauritius Oil Spill: An Environmental Catastrophe That Could Have Been Much Worse - EcoWatch ›
New fossils uncovered in Argentina may belong to one of the largest animals to have walked on Earth.
- Groundbreaking Fossil Shows Prehistoric 15-Foot Reptile Tried to ... ›
- Skull of Smallest Known Dinosaur Found in 99-Million-Year Old Amber ›
- Giant 'Toothed' Birds Flew Over Antarctica 40 Million Years Ago ... ›
- World's Second-Largest Egg Found in Antarctica Probably Hatched ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
- Pruitt Guts the Clean Power Plan: How Weak Will the New EPA ... ›
- It's Official: Trump Administration to Repeal Clean Power Plan ... ›
- 'Deadly' Clean Power Plan Replacement ›
By Jonathan Runstadler and Kaitlin Sawatzki
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers have found coronavirus infections in pet cats and dogs and in multiple zoo animals, including big cats and gorillas. These infections have even happened when staff were using personal protective equipment.
- Gorillas in San Diego Test Positive for Coronavirus - EcoWatch ›
- Wildlife Rehabilitators Are Overwhelmed During the Pandemic. In ... ›
- Coronavirus Pandemic Linked to Destruction of Wildlife and World's ... ›
- Utah Mink Becomes First Wild Animal to Test Positive for Coronavirus ›
By Peter Giger
The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
By John R. Platt
The period of the 45th presidency will go down as dark days for the United States — not just for the violent insurgency and impeachment that capped off Donald Trump's four years in office, but for every regressive action that came before.
- Biden Announces $2 Trillion Climate and Green Recovery Plan ... ›
- How Biden and Kerry Can Rebuild America's Climate Leadership ... ›
- Biden's EPA Pick Michael Regan Urged to Address Environmental ... ›
- How Joe Biden's Climate Plan Compares to the Green New Deal ... ›